Query Me This

Post Date: November 1st, 2008

“Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It’s the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write.”

— Nicholas Sparks

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 261,363. 466 words gone.

Page Count for the Novel: 928 (I had chapters beginning on separate pages, and I want to see what the true page count is, not including pages with only one line on them.)

When is a writer ready to query? It’s both an intuitive and a logistical decision, a balancing of your mind and heart’s call, that gut feeling, against the reality of those picked-at pages. In what I would call my serious sixth year of writing this novel and in my third draft, I write query letters as a way to focus my goals for my novel. I am not far from sending one off, as I’m on draft #8 of one particular query letter. Researching my potential future agents and editors as been a way to stay motivated and keep myself on track.

On Saturday, October 25, The Raleigh Write 2 Publish Meetup Group held a Q & A session with Charlotte agent Sally Hill McMillan (literary fiction, women’s, inspirational, nonfiction) and editor Chuck Adams of Algonquin (Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants one of his well-known books). Here’s what I learned:

About the business: the publishing industry does not employ a diverse group of people, therefore what gets published is limited by the perspective of those running the business. The profession pays poorly, so the people who are drawn to it tend to be northeastern, white, prep school graduates with families that can afford to work in publishing. A gifted Latino coming out of college with student loans can’t get very far on the salaries paid in publishing.

Algonquin – owned by Workman – is a New York publisher. The Chapel Hill office is a “façade,” he jokes. Algonquin doesn’t take on any book that it doesn’t believe couldn’t sell 50,000 copies. An acquisitions editor has to ask, Does this book have a broad enough readership? Most first novels sell less than 5,000 copies. Why? Publishers don’t have advertising budgets to push these books further.

About an editor’s role: Chuck Adams said he has a knack for trying to keep people calm, which helps in the process of reworking a novel. He says he’s a line editor –dogged, chipping away word by word — but not a conceptual thinker when it comes to solving plot problems and getting past blocks. Some editors are great for that. He joked that some acquisitions editors are not good line editors, but they give good lunch. He approaches everything as a reader. When something in the manuscript makes him stop – a word, an action – he makes a mark. The really good authors listen to what he says but not everything. Half the time he’s right, and half the time he’s wrong. An author needs to speak up when she’s sure that her character wouldn’t take the suggested action or speak a certain way. He says that as an editor you’re there to guide and facilitate, but it’s not your manuscript. Your name doesn’t get put on the book.

Adams noted that today there is too much emphasis on a manuscript coming in perfect. Big houses such as Bantam don’t give a manuscript detailed attention, since houses can’t afford to hire line editors for four months. More and more authors rely on agents or free lance editors for that kind of help. McMillan suggested that if you use an editor before submitting to her, don’t let her know: she wants to see what you can do without an editor. She’s looking toward your future as someone capable of multiple publications, not someone whose work needs serious book-doctoring every time. (I’ve learned firsthand the perils of handing your baby over to an ill-qualified book doctor with little to tell me and much to charge me.)

About the role of an agent: McMillan says that a good agent works like the diplomatic middle child, the moderator between publisher and author. She asks, What can I do to make this relationship smooth? McMillan says she tries to stay in the loop of what’s happening in the book’s production. If her client gets into an adversarial relationship with the publisher, it has an effect on her. So an agent needs to bring the skills of problem solving, intuiting, and question asking to the relationship. Her answer came in response to, “How do you balance the relationship between author and publisher?” – and this might be a good one to ask when interviewing agents.

About your manuscript: Both McMillan and Adams say they take notice if voice and energy are present. For McMillan, it could be a quirkiness, a unique voice still bearing a universality that speaks to her. As she reads, she’s asking, Can I identify with this main character in the first few pages? She said that as a reader she wants to be compelled to read till very end—not just the first 50-60 pages. She wants to think, “I love this character and I want her to work these problems out.”

Adams’s question while reading is, Is this is a big enough story that will make me enjoy myself the whole trip? He says he doesn’t finish the great majority of manuscripts because by page 30 they run out of steam. He’s looking for raw talent and doesn’t mind the kind of errors that are “fixable.” He loves to work with first-time authors. He says he loves his job because it’s like “falling in love” again and again when you discover that great new manuscript.

Both mentioned poor grammar and mechanics (occurring at a rate of increasing frequency nowadays) as big red flags. Such errors usually give away the age of the author, Adams says, but more importantly, speak to the lack of care invested in a manuscript.

About querying: Adams does look at slush e-mail as does McMillan, but don’t expect an answer. He shepherds about five books a year, while Algonquin as a whole juggles about 20. Therefore his usual response must be a “no.” Algonquin is a publisher that still accepts unsolicited manuscripts, and you can expect your manuscript to be read by an intern (the majority are UNC-Chapel Hill students.) Adams does open all the mail he receives and then hands it off to various interns.

About the writer as client: McMillan hopes that all her clients will be good listeners who are coachable and teachable. She says her dream client wants to work with her. For nonfiction especially, the writer who brings a platform (the number of potential readers awaiting the book) is ideal. If you can use a blog or Web site to build a base, that’s an excellent way to build your platform. Endorsements in a query letter might catch her eye, lending your unknown name some credibility.

About self-publishing: It’s something to consider for those who have a niche market, such as nonfiction writers. Adams says he has heard that Lulu.com and iUniverse both do a good job getting your book built. Lulu is currently establishing a headquarters on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. However, self-publishing means you’re on your own, and a publishing house will edit and market better.

I spoke with Adams after the session and asked him about the fact that my book is somewhere between two genres, a hybrid beast. He mentioned a few publishers that might suit and then said that it’s hard when you’re forging a new path – you’re out there on your own trying to communicate where you fit and what you have to offer.

As I’ve polished the most recent query letter, I’ve used a very helpful resource, Noah Lukeman’s How to Write a Great Query Letter. It provides specific guidelines about how to stay concise (a three-sentence plot synopsis), how to focus each paragraph, and how to keep your audience clearly in mind. He also points out several pitfalls you definitely want to avoid. My queries have improved tremendously from consulting this resource.

Today’s Writing Goal:
Work through a block where two plot lines cross and make sure they link up smoothly.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: The Big Questions

We all have questions that no one seems to know the answer to. What questions do you wish someone would answer? What questions are really exciting to you? What questions keep you up at night? What questions would you like to ask but are too afraid to ask?

Think of someone whom you believe knows a lot. Think of a question you would like to ask that person.

Write a list of ten big questions you have. Then write about how you would find the answer to one of them. Who would you need to talk to? Where might you go to find out? What else would you need to do?

Optional: Write a letter to someone who can help you answer this question.

Secondary and Adult: The Big Questions

There are many types of questions that excite us or keep us up at night or haunt us during our days. Factual questions are those ones that will eventually yield a yes/no or data-based answer – and it may be just a matter of time to get there. Analytical and evaluative questions result in more open-ended answers and require more critical thinking.

Analytical and evaluative questions can begin with words such as how, could, what if, and should. Write ten open-ended questions that get you thinking hard.

Select one and answer it. Answer it by listing what you already know, what you want to know, and how you will find the answer.

Optional: Write a query letter to someone who can help you answer this question.


  1. bobmust says:

    Your post on Algonquin and Chuck Adams is a nice tandem to the latest issue of P&W. You’re lucky to get face time with these folks.
    FYI – anyone using iUniverse, etc. should be made aware that they do cheesy cover art, so spend the money and get your own cover art done. Also, be prepared to market the book yourself – the chains don’t let POD books get to their shelves, so you’re left with local book parties you organize, fairs etc. Your readers oughta know.

  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Bob,

    Yes, P & W is what got me headed to Quail Ridge in the first place. I was so impressed by Chuck Adams’s perspective that I thought, I would like to meet him in person. Sally McMillan was also impressive. It reminded me that it is so important to find someone who is on your team and not just interested in the bottom line but you as a long-term author and your work as something to partner on, not something that comes to them 100% perfect. While editors who want to spend quality time with a writer are becoming a rarity, I hold out the hope that one is out there for me.

    Agreed on the pitfalls of self-publishing, and thanks for the heads up to everyone about cover art. Many of us writers aren’t gifted in the sales and marketing arena, and the self-organized PR pitches that would be neecessary are so time-consuming and not at all suited to the life style of a writer nor the fiction market. While marketing your work is doable, it’s a huge commitment that I would rather trust to someone else.

    — Lyn

  3. Anonymous says:


    Enjoyed your comments on the Algonquin and Chuck Adams event. I have attempted queries by the “rules” and have gotten my share of rejections.

    Not clear if they were by “interns” or by the actual agent. Based on the the replies I can’t tell what the reasons were for the initial failure.

    I had followed the suggested groundrules and researched the genres and preferences of the agents before sending the query letters, synopses, and or sample chapters. What did I get back,
    included boilerplate letters and/or brief thanks but not thanks.

    The upside of all this was to rethink my novel, edit the heck out of it, and I will now write a new query letter, change the title and chapter sequence and try again.

    At my age and with my experience scar tissue, I can handle the truth.

  4. Lyn Hawks says:

    Hi, Anon,

    The fact that you’ve returned to the manuscript with new zeal says a lot about your writer’s ethic. What Adams and McMillan stressed was the need for writers to cultivate a certain amount of flexibility and open-mindedness to critique. In your case, it’s not like you’ve had any helpful criticisms via rejections, but you’ve used the “nos” to turn the experience into a yes. I applaud you for that, and it reminds me to keep that attitude alive.

    Thanks for your comments!